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Posts Tagged ‘Humor’

recycling binSome food for thought.

Maybe you’re like me and spend part of your time beating yourself up over things you should be doing.

Like not returning bottles for their deposits.

Rather than redeem them at the store down the street, I chuck them into the recycling bin. Every time I do this I scold myself. Why don’t I return them for the deposit? I don’t know.

Well, actually, I do know. I am a bad person. I am slothful, and indolent. And lazy. And lack willpower and am morally deficient. To get the money back, I would actually  have to put them in a box, put them in a car and take them to the redemption center. Imagine the energy it takes to do that. I am overwhelmed.

Sometimes, when I’m feeling like a useless individual and total spendthrift who wastes money and time and everything else, my mind comes to rest on my failure to take in bottles to get all those nickels back.

I could have retired by now. Millions of dollars wasted by not returning bottles.  While they are being recycled, I am not being financially responsible.  If there’s one thing that shows my moral failings, it’s my financial irresponsility. I’m sure none of you ever feel like that.

But now, I am content in my sloth and indolence. Sometimes there is nothing like dragging your feet when you’re supposed to be responsible, efficient and frugal. Sometimes it takes while for the purpose of an action to reveal itself.

About a month ago, I dragged out the recycling to the curb. There was a big container of bottles to be recycled (and I don’t want to discuss why there were so many and what had been in them…). I stood there looking at them thinking “You’re a lazy idiot. You should take them in and get the money for them.”

But it was late. And I was lazy. I chose guilt over action.

Something woke me early in the morning – it was still dark, around 5:45. I heard a noise outside. There were bottles and cans clinking and rattling out by the street. An alcoholic opossum? Or dog? A coyote? A squirrel? All these things were possible.

I got up from bed, quietly opened the door onto the porch and looked out onto the street. A car was pulled up by my driveway, its headlights illuminating my recycling bin. Someone was sifting through my recycling. They were stealing my bottles! In a weird, irrational response, I at first felt like I was being violated. Someone was taking my stuff! That stuff was worth something! I should yell at him to stop!

Then I saw the irony in that. By dragging it out to the curb, I had kind of declared what it was worth to me.

I watched the guy get in the car and drive down to my neighbor’s driveway, where he did the same thing. Bottles clinking, him pawing through the recycling bin, earning a nickel with each bottle he found. I got back in bed and lay there staring at the ceiling thinking about it. Then I fell asleep for another hour and forgot about it.

Until the next Wednesday morning, when I was again awakened by the sound of clinking bottles.

And last week, too.  Always the same time, around 5:45, give or take five minutes.

So now I am thinking about the diligence and need of someone driving down my street collecting the bottles for deposit at 5:45 in the morning. I am thinking what a small thing it is, and what it means.

I hope he makes a million dollars. Or buys some food.  Or get whatever it is he needs. It is a small offering, but one I now happily make every Tuesday night when I drag out the recycling bins. My lacksidaisical approach to frugality is someone else’s boon. I can live with that.

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I suspect that waiters and waitresses have been given detailed instruction on behavior modification for diners. Diners like me, so eager to please, can be directed towards particular behavior through a simple set of phrases. It won’t work on everyone, but it works on me.

I went into a restaurant for dinner a couple of weeks ago. I sat down and the waitress came up to the table. “Good evening, she said. “Can I start you off with something to drink?”

You will no doubt recognize this phrase. I don’t know if it’s included in the training, but it is spoken by every waiter or waitress I’ve encountered in the last twenty years They, of course, are eager to sell a drink, preferably something alcoholic, since that is where the restaurant makes money, and how they increase the size of the tips. I understand that.

“Give me a minute,” I said.

“No problem,” she said and walked away. “No problem” is an interesting response. It seems to mean that I have given her a little bit of trouble, but she can get over it. I really kind of hope I am no problem, since serving me is, in fact, the point of her job. Still, I couldn’t feel I had been a little bit of a problem, and, weenie that I am, I felt bad about that.

She eventually returned. Eventually. “Are you ready?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Perfect,” she said.

I wouldn’t have looked on my response as “Perfect”, but maybe it was the exact answer she wanted, and therefore, perfect. At least to her. And I felt a little bit better about our new relationship. I realized she was going to let me know when I got the answer right.

“I’d like a bottle of wine.”

“Perfect,” she said, and smiled. “Let me recommend…” (And here she suggests a bottle that is, in fact, about the most expensive wine on the list.)

I am personally suspect of any twenty-two year old who professes to know something about expensive bottles of wine, but I didn’t want to judge. We were spending the night together and I wanted to get along. I hoped she would understand.

“I was thinking about this Malbec,” I said, pointing at the wine list. It was noticeably cheaper. Like $60 cheaper.

“No problem,” she said.

I looked at her – her face was neutral, but I could just kind of tell I had made a little bit of a mistake. I was letting her down.

She brought the wine. I tasted it. I approved.

“Perfect,” she said. “Ready to order?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Perfect,” she said. “Would you like the special?”

“Yes,” I said. It was pricey, but it sounded good. It would make up for the rotgut wine I ordered.

“Perfect,” she said. “With the sautéed mushrooms?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Perfect,” she said. “Do you want to start with an appetizer?”

“No thanks,” I said.

“No problem,” she said.

“But I’d like a salad,” I offered, knowing I’d let her down.

“Fine,” she said.

Well, here was a new word, and I wasn’t sure what it meant. She didn’t say it sarcastically, so I figured there was some honesty in the response. Maybe it really was fine. But it wasn’t a “Perfect”. I think it was somewhere between “No problem” and “Perfect”, indicating there was room for improvement, but she had hopes for me. I knew I could do better.

“Blue cheese crumbles?” she asked. They were another $2, but that seemed a small price to pay for her approval.

“Yes,” I said, hopefully.

“Perfect,” she said. She smiled at me as she took the menus, letting me know I was behaving. And then I blew it.

“Could I have a little more water?”

Why did I say that?

“No problem,” she said. “No problem at all.”

“Whenever you get a chance,” I offered in apology.

“Perfect,” she said.

This pretty much set the stage for the rest of the meal. I found I could anticipate almost all of her desires, and was rewarded with a continuing flow of “Perfects”. It was like a little bell rang every time I answered correctly. We were developing a deep relationship. Pavlov had nothing on my waitress, as I tried to anticipate how she expected me to respond. I wanted those “Perfects”.

The meal was good, but not great. Especially for the price. But I had my priorities.

“How’s the meal?” she asked.

“Great,” I said.

“Perfect. Anything else you want right now?”

“No.”

“Perfect.”

I made a mistake towards the end of the main course, when she asked the increasingly common and confusing question, “Are you still working on that?”

I was flummoxed a little because I didn’t know I was working on anything. I was under the mistaken impression I was having a nice dinner. It gave me this image of me attacking whatever I had on the plate with a crosscut saw and power drill. I would think that she wanted me to be “still enjoying that”, or “still eating”. I hadn’t looked on eating as work, although I did feel my attempts to please her bordered on a vocation.

“Almost finished,” I said, showing I was really trying.

“No problem.”

I knew I was a problem. I finished as quickly as I could. I cleaned my plate. I stacked them, too.

“Room for dessert?” she asked.

I could see now this relationship wasn’t going to work. The spirit willing, the flesh stuffed.

“I think I’m too full,” I confessed.

“No problem,” she said. “Just the check?”

“Perfect,” I said.

It was inadvertent. I wasn’t thinking. The word was running through my mind, and it just slipped out.

She stopped in her tracks and looked at me. I had crossed a line in my behavior and I knew it.

“Whenever you’re ready,” I apologized.

“No problem,” she answered.

“Perfect,” I countered.

“No problem at all.”

“Fine,” I said.

“Perfect.”

“Perfect.”

“No problem.”

“No problem.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

I knew I could still salvage what was left of the evening. When the bill came, I left a little over twenty percent. A generous tip, but we had an understanding. I wanted her to know I cared. She picked up the tab and glanced at it.

“Perfect,” she said. “Thanks for coming in.”

“Thanks for having me,” I said, hoping to please her one more time.

“Whatever,” she said.

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I’ve taken a break from the blog for the past month or so – hope you all didn’t leave me. We’ve had a great summer – proved by my lack of productivity. It’s good to be back.

I was talking with a good friend and he mentioned that his father was always sending him jokes over the Internet. I nodded – it’s a common practice today. “What’s weird,” he said, “is that it used to be that whenever I talked to my dad, he always had a joke to tell me. Now he never tells me any. He says he can’t remember them.”

I don’t think it’s just old age – I think it’s the nature of digital memory and the way we relate to each other. I remember a discussion I had with a young accountant on airplane. When I told him I was a storyteller he shook his head. “I can’t even remember a joke, ” he said. He, too, noted that he gets hundreds of jokes over the Internet, but can’t remember any of them.

And how many people don’t tell jokes because they say, “I just can’t tell a joke”?

This all got me thinking about the nature and function of jokes. Jokes are the grease in oral conversation, and seem to be a bit of a dying art form. They are, in fact, something you have to practice a little, and they are less common than they were a decade or two ago.

The problem with jokes on the Internet is the assumption that the joke’s main function is to make us laugh wherever we are, even when we’re alone staring at a screen.

That’s wrong, I think.

Jokes are, mainly, about relationships and the social setting. A joke read alone on a computer has little social function. It’s only in the company of people that they serve a purpose.

Telling jokes bear great relationship to the telling of stories. What are jokes for, anyway? Here’s three things:

First, jokes are a mid-point between a greeting and a conversation. Because they are structured, they are little set pieces in which the teller and listener get to play more formal roles – there’s less at stake, since nothing deep is being required. The conversation is going to go deeper, hopefully, but jokes serve as a way to spend time before the conversation goes to another level. They’re like talking about the weather and sports. We can say that they’re meaningless, but those placeholders have a function in conversation.

Second – jokes define the group we belong to (even if it’s as broad as the human race). Knowing the right joke to tell is critical – it shows a sensitivity to the setting and the people. We’ve all been in a place with a group of people where someone told the wrong joke. Oh boy, I’ve done it myself. My wife rolls her eyes. There’s a stony silence. Whoops. The joke teller is making an estimation of what the group is, and then telling a joke that helps to define that group. A joke says “You’re like me – you’ll think this is funny.” So men tell jokes they wouldn’t tell in groups with women, and vice versa. Teachers tell jokes about teaching and students, accountants tell jokes about accounting (if they can remember them). Republicans, Democrats. You get the idea. When you tell a joke to someone and it works, you’ve established a connection that says, “We have this kind of humor, we think this way.” In that way, it’s a deepening of a bond – more so than talking about the rain last night. And if you miscalculate, you drive a division between yourself and the listener. A joke is a little bit of a risk, too.

Third – jokes do make us laugh, but it’s not just laughter for laughter’s sake. Laughter drops our defenses and makes us more open to the people we’re with. Laughter and humor are important steps in a relationship, even if it’s with a person you meet on a plane or train, or standing in line. Jokes are a way of breaking down walls.

So when I hear my friend say that his father, a life-long joke teller just sends jokes and doesn’t tell them, I know something’s being lost.

And as for those who say they can’t tell a joke – well, some people have a better sense of timing and all, but mostly it just comes from doing it. A joke is rarely well told the first time – around the seventh or eighth try, it gets into shape. Saying you can’t tell a joke is a little like saying you can’t sing. If you don’t do it, you won’t be able to do it.

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J.D. Salinger, YA Novelist

Through an inexplicable set of circumstances, this letter has fallen into my hands, and I think it only fair to share it with my friends.

February 6, 2010

Mr. Jerome D. Salinger
New York, NY

Dear Mr. Salinger,

Thank you for submitting your manuscript, Catcher in the Rye, for consideration. We receive thousands of submissions, and apologize that it took fifty years to reach this point in our deliberations.

We love your writing, and think you show great promise. After a careful reading, our twenty-two year old intern has commented and we agree with her observations.

Perhaps you committed an oversight  in submitting your manuscript to the adult fiction department of Random Grouse. This is, quite clearly, a young adult (YA) novel, and should be considered by Random Grouse’s YA division, not the adult division. There is a current backlog there of seven years, but we think they are in a much better position to market your book. There is nothing to be ashamed of in having written a YA novel – the market is a good one, and we think that a book like yours will find a place on the shelves of many middle school libraries, and even a few high school collections. Many YA novelists have gone on to successful careers in the world of adult fiction, when they move on to a more mature subject. You will agree a pimply, callow high school boy is not the stuff that holds adult readers.

So, while we have to pass on your manuscript, we have forwarded your book to Delilah Scrum, a new editor (now a senior at Sarah Lawrence! Majoring in Communication!), at the YA division, and we certainly hope you hear from her.

With that said, I might note that we have several suggestions that might aid in the marketing of your book. Titles usually are chosen further down the line in the publishing process, but all of us believe that “Catcher in the Rye” is a rather obscure reference to a forgotten folk song; it will be hard to drum up excitement in the market. We suggest, “Don’t Be a Phony, Holden Caufield” as a possible replacement. It has the kind of snap young readers like.

Even though it is a YA novel, we think it might have a little more edge, too. Don’t forget, we’re competing with the new media! Underage drinking is one thing, but perhaps an estranged parent comes to him for help after some drug deal has gone awry  – that might add some interest! Does Holden have a distant cousin, a recent refugee from a war-torn country, engaged in the arms trade, that might show up pregnant on his doorstep?

And finally, we’re wondering if you have ever considered adding a vampire as a character. They’re hot right now!

Once again, we think you have a bright future as a writer for young adults. It is the one part of the market that seems to be expanding, and perhaps you should set your sights there.

Like, really.

Sincerely,

Flora Lipid
Senior Associate Assistant Editorial Consultant
Random Grouse Publishers

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